A Roman Legion Lost in China
By Angelo Paratico
Published Online (2013)
The battle of Carrhae ended fifty-three years before the birth of Jesus Christ, on the last day of May. It was a shameful disaster for the Roman army: seven legions with the strength of 45,000 men were humiliated and routed by 10,000 Parthian archers.
The commanding officer of the unfortunate expedition was Marcus Licinius Crassus, a sixty-two-year-old tribune eager for glory and wealth, even though he was already the richest man in Rome. He organized the campaign – perhaps also because he envied the military successes of Pompey and Caesar, and foolishly thought his amateur dramatics might equal their professionalism. His only triumph had been achieved with Pompey’s help: the bloody suppression of Spartacus and his slaves. He had insufficient experience to embark on a large-scale operation himself; thus, Rome’s Republican government were loathe to let him depart with such a sizeable army, especially since there was no real emergency in the east. During the heated public debate about the excursion, a tribunus plebis named Ateius argued vehemently in opposition. Plutarch wrote that, when Ateius realised that his efforts were in vain and that he would not receive enough supporting votes, he theatrically lit a brazier and, while throwing grains of incense onto the flames, started to curse Crassus and evoke the infernal gods. Judging from the name and the behaviour of this man, we can guess that he was of Etruscan descent! To strengthen his own case, Crassus had enlisted the support of Pompey and Caesar, who saw an opportunity to free themselves of a powerful competitor.
When the Senate granted approval, Crassus assembled metropolitan legions in Rome, marched to Campania and then to Brindisi, where he met with other legions summoned from Calabria. The troops embarked despite of stormy seas – an early indication of his ineptitude. Not all the ships reached the other shore.
Crassus had the blind goddess Fortune on his side during his youth: he emerged unscathed from the civil wars, and though he was implicated in the Catiline conspiracy he suffered no consequences. He also settled the debts of a spendthrift Caesar whilst being tightfisted himself and with his family.
But as he aged he became a sort of blunderer, making numerous and serious mistakes, some of them mentioned by the historians who have written in detail about his last expedition. For instance, in a speech to his soldiers he proclaimed that he would destroy a bridge ‘so that none of you would be able to return’ but when he noticed the expressions of dismay amongst his soldiers, Crassus quickly corrected himself by explaining that he had been referring to the enemy. At one point he ordered the distribution of lentils and salt to the troops, oblivious that this was a meal offered at funerals. And when he dropped on the floor the entrails of a sacrificial animal placed in his hands by a haruspex (a soothsayer) Crassus cried: “Fear not; despite my age, the hilt of my sword will not slip from my hand!” On the day of the battle Crassus wore a black tunic, instead of the purple colour de rigour for Roman generals, and even though he quickly returned to his tent to change, he left his officers speechless.